The great poet Shaheed Quaderi had been suffering from kidney ailments for the past decade. Nevertheless, his passing on the morning of August 28 at the age of 74 was a shock to his legions of fans in Bangladesh and all across the globe.
Quaderi was one of those rare poets to achieve mythical stature within his lifetime. Like his friend Shamsur Rahman, his work stands on a class of its own, and continues to speak to and inspire new generations.
Proof of that is the size of the crowd that flocked to the Shaheed Minar for a last goodbye -- his body was flown back to Bangladesh, as Quaderi always felt he belonged here, in spite of the émigré life of his later years. The roots were too deep, he always said.
Shaheed bhai became my relative after marrying my cousin. I had the privilege of meeting him in New York when making a mandatory visit to my cousin Neera apa’s home in Jamaica, Queens. Her little apartment had been transformed after Shaheed bhai moved in -- books now covered every surface of the house.
He read omnivorously, but wrote sparingly. Uttaradhikar (1967) and Tomake obhibadon priyotoma (1974) were his two early collections that established him as a major voice. After his third book, he took a long hiatus from writing. Did publishing take too much out of him? Did he want to get away from the spotlight, away from his fans? We may never know why.
A copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra lay on his coffee table.
“It’s poetry,” he said. “If you think of it as poetry, the book is not so strange.”
I was no stranger to the book myself -- I had studied it recently in college and was curious about what Shaheed bhai thought about my take on the epic. With a bit of trepidation, I launched into my own analysis.
After his third book, he took a long hiatus from writing. Did publishing take too much out of him? Did he want to get away from the spotlight, away from his fans? We may never know why
Shaheed bhai listened intently and gave me his feedback. Here I was, a twentysomething college student giving my two cents to this doyen of literature, but from his end there was not a whiff of condescension towards me.
He paid attention to my perspective as though we were equals.
I felt grateful and humbled.
But there was a lighter side to him -- when things got too serious he would make a joke to clear the air. Even while in pain, while exhausted from repeated trips to the hospital, and hooked up to a dialysis machine, he was full of good humour.
“We used to play pranks all the time, we even pranked each other” Shaheed bhai said. “It was me, Shamsur Rahman, Al Mahmud, and a few others.”
Knowing the delicate egos of emerging poets, one time Shaheed bhai told an up-and-comer of the time (who later became very famous) that he had memorised all his poems. The young poet was incredulous, but Shaheed bhai snuck into his bathroom where he happened to have a copy of the poet’s new book stashed away. With the door shut, Shaheed bhai read out the entire book and claimed he was reciting by heart.
The young poet had nearly died of excitement. When he found out the truth, to say he was angry would be an understatement.
Literary legends can at times be as childish as anyone else.
With Shaheed bhai no longer around, these little biographical nuggets will fade away, and I am sure that that particular young poet he pranked has forgiven him since then. What will live on for the ages is his work.
May his soul rest in peace.
Abak Hussain is Op-Ed Editor, Dhaka Tribune.
Greetings to you, my Beloved
Fear not, I will take such measures That the army will march past you With a bunch of flowers On their shoulders And salute, only you, My beloved.Fear not, I will take such measures That crossing forests and thickets, Barbed-wire fences and barricades, Carrying memories of many battlefields, Armoured vehicles will come to your threshold Laden with violins, Only for you, my beloved. Fear not, I will take such measures— Such measures will I take that B-52s and MIG 21s will zoom overhead, And like paratroopers, Chocolates and toffees and lozenges, Will shower on your lawn, Only for you, my beloved. Fear not, fear not, Fear not…I will take such measures That a poet will command All naval fleets in the Bay of Bengal, And in the coming election A lover will defeat a Minister, My beloved. Know this, all conflicts will end— I will take such measures That a singer will easily Become the leader of the Opposition Party, Trenches in the borders, Will be guarded all-year round By red, blue and golden fishes— Everything will be banned, Except the smuggling of love, my beloved. Fear not, I will take such measures That inflation will decrease, And production of excellent poetry will increase daily, I will take such measures That the assassin’s knife will slip from his hand, Not through fear of the mob’s fury, But through fear of the mob’s kisses, Only for you, my beloved. Fear not I will take such measures That like the secret attack of Spring Upon a wintry park, Revolutionaries will invade the city With accordions. Fear not, I will take such measures, That when you go to the State Bank You can exchange a bunch of roses and chrysanthemums For at least four lac Taka, Four cardigans for a single jasmine. Fear not, fear not I will take such measures That air, naval and artillery battalions Will surround only you, night and day, And greet you, my beloved.
Translated by Shawkat Hussain